Reggie McKenzie always had a plan.
And give the man credit, because not once did he deviate from that plan, even when popular opinion might have swayed him otherwise.
In December 2014 – in what now seems like an eternity ago – McKenzie and the Raiders were a team with an interim head coach, a rookie quarterback under center, and were a group that had just won their first game after starting the season 0-10.
But still, McKenzie stayed the course, and now that the Raiders are 9-2 and in first place in the AFC West, the Raiders General Manager can look back and realize that 2014 – while frustrating at times – was key to helping the Silver and Black to get to where they are now.
"That was the year – really good and bad parts --- I felt like with the draft year that we had, not just the two first picks that were getting all the accolades, but even a couple of free agents, like [wide receiver] Seth [Roberts] and [defensive lineman] Denico [Autry] that were playing a lot as free agents back then," McKenzie said Thursday. "We had those guys in 2014, just they were young, being 0-10 is no fun, but we were 3-3 at the end of that stretch, and we were moving in the right direction."
While the Raiders did finish the 2014 campaign with just a 3-13 mark, the end of that year did coincide with a turn for the organization, as Jack Del Rio was hired as head coach of the Raiders just weeks after the end of the season.
"With the players, they totally believe," McKenzie said when asked about the impact of Del Rio. "That's number one. That's what you want, is the players to believe, trust, and to know that they're going to be able to compete day in and day out."
Del Rio has certainly molded the Raiders into his likeness since he arrived back home in the East Bay, but make no mistake about it, the continued evolution of top-tier players like Derek Carr and Khalil Mack certainly helps any rebuild.
"He's always had a strong arm," McKenzie said of Carr. "He's always been smart, the quick release, that was there, but maybe you could say from his leadership it was almost to me, instant. He's a natural leader, and for him to have the guys support, and [to] allow him to lead like he does, so quickly, that more so than talent, maybe was surprising."
Carr is far from a one-man army though as he, wide receiver Amari Cooper, and defensive end Khalil Mack comprise the team's young nucleus.
"Khalil Mack, it's obvious, not only his talent, but he way he goes about his business; both him and 'Coop' have a business-like approach to everything they do," McKenzie explained. "The effort, the toughness, the stuff that they fight through injury-wise, their teammates feed off of that. They see how they're hurting or whatever, and they'll still out there every day."
Over the past few seasons McKenzie has completely retooled the Raiders roster, filling the necessary voids on both sides of the football, and supplying Head Coach Del Rio and his staff with the proper players to turn the Raiders back into a contender.
Since being hired in 2012, McKenzie has remained steadfast, saying that there were multiple phases to rebuilding the Raiders. So now at 9-2 and with the team's sights now aimed at a return to the postseason, McKenzie says he and staff are now in Phase Two, and what exactly does that entail?
"Your drafted players become your core," McKenzie explained. "It becomes your core now. As far as Phase Three, it's that you can sign them, and you can keep them, and continue that process. That's kind of where we are right now, but we feel good about where we are. We think we built this thing to last."
Here are some other highlights from McKenzie's 30-minute media session:
Center Rodney Hudson quietly goes about his business, but McKenzie knows the importance of having him anchor the offensive line:
"I thought it was vital to have somebody in the middle of that offensive line to, number one, [having] the mentality that he had, the smarts to make the calls, and to communicate with the other offensive linemen, and to have that rapport with the quarterback. He's the ideal player that you need, and plus he's quick, quick hands, he's strong enough. To me, he was the unsung hero of that year, in getting everybody together. He's a really good football player."
McKenzie also shared an update on the status of suspended linebacker Aldon Smith:
"Those guys [the NFL] will let us know in due time. I'm sure they're in communication with each other with that, but they don't fill us in on anything in that process… We're going to go through the proper channels, and see where he's at physically, and mentally, and all of that, so to totally discount this year, no, we wouldn't do that."
Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. was able to start working out on the field Thursday, and McKenzie gave a timeline of when he expects No. 97 could return to action:**
"It's a day-to-day thing for him now. We'll see how he comes in in the morning after he did some work today. He's been working out. He's had a good week. Earlier in the week, just on the treadmill, and he graduated to going on the field today, so we'll see how it goes tomorrow when he comes in, if he's feeling good. As long as he's asymptomatic, we'll keep pushing the envelope with him, but it's totally on him and how he feels, not only when he's working out."
He also spoke about the impact that veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree has had on the Silver and Black:
"It's amazing how perception is something else. When you put a guy in a different environment, to what he came into, it was good for the Raiders. He wanted to be a Raider, and you can feel his joy being in the building, being on the practice field, being in that uniform. He really liked the team, and he wanted to be a part of it. I can't speak for how he felt across the Bay, but aside from that, he's talented. He can catch the football, with 10 people draped on him. He's just one of those special players that way. The way he gelled with not only his position group, but the entire team, what he's done for Amari, being the elder statesmen in that room, you couldn't have it any better. It was ideal."